Curriculum design for Secondary English

Why now is the time for genuine curriculum conversations

There has been nothing short of an explosion of interest in curriculum in schools over the last few years. It has likely been driven by the revised Education inspection framework from Ofsted, but of course there are other more compelling reasons for making curriculum work our priority.

It isn’t, of course, that we hadn’t already been giving consideration to curriculum development, but when I reflect back on my early experiences of teaching, my understanding was pretty poor: I was thinking about schemes of work and activities, not about cohesive sequences of learning, and I was more focused on engaging pupils than I was on developing schema over time. I suspect my experience wasn’t uncommon.

Thankfully, my understanding of curriculum design did improve, although largely it did so through experience and the generous support of colleagues, rather than rigorous professional development. What did hinder it, though, was the constant cycle of change – from one exam specification to another, from coursework to controlled assessment to linear examinations – each one adding to my workload as we ripped up the curriculum and started again, while improving very little for pupils or for teachers.

How, then, can we harness the momentum of the current curriculum focus while making real gains in our subject? Despite the constant changes in English, it’s probably true that many of the ‘persistent problems’ we face still remain: pupils still typically struggle to remember things, to think conceptually, to write enough, to think of ideas, and to connect their learning. Any curriculum should seek to address these problems.

Developing such a curriculum cannot happen in silos – it comes from rich conversations. When I co-wrote The Trouble with English with Zoe Helman, it was a series of conversations – between ourselves and with teachers – that led to the development of our particular model, which is one based on concepts. Working together in collaboration, thinking deeply about the subject, playing with ideas and debating with other professionals was the kind of subject CPD I had craved my whole teaching life. And it really struck me that it’s where real curriculum development happens – from genuine curriculum conversations.

Girl student in classroom, sitting at a desk with her book open, smiling and listening to a teacher

Here are three reasons why we need to have these conversations in English right now:

We know more about how learning happens

In recent years we’ve been able to learn more than ever before about cognitive science – how memory works and how learning actually happens in the brain. We process new information in our working memory, and how it’s processed depends on what we already know – the connections we make between what’s already in long-term memory and the new information. Over time, as we learn more, we develop our schema as we forge new, even deeper connections.

This sits well with English because it is really the heart of our subject – thinking, organising our thoughts, connecting; good creative and analytical writing is the consequence or the product of that. But we have to take care when we apply a scientific approach to a subject so full of abstractions and emotions, and make sure we don’t reduce it by falling foul of potential mutations. We need to ask questions about, for example, how retrieval practice might work in English, in critical conversations.

Curriculum is now a national conversation

The new Ofsted framework prioritises a curriculum geared towards the acquisition of concepts, which raises the question of what those concepts might be in English. In the past it has often seemed that the accountability system actively distorted our subject, but its current focus frames it as one where deep concepts, which might include, for example, characterisation, rhetoric and structure, are central to meaningful learning.

Curriculum development is teacher development

A genuine curriculum conversation in a department might explore what the most powerful big ideas and connections are in English, and how they will be integrated into pupils’ disciplinary schema. When it’s a shared conversation, all pupils benefit, because when the most expert teachers engage in conversations with the ECTs, and everyone deeply understands the thinking processes involved in curating a curriculum, it creates more equity for them. Whether you are buying in a model, such as the excellent Oxford English one, or you’re designing your own from scratch, it has to be owned by the department so they can live it: developing your curriculum together is the best way to build your team.

Girl sitting down at desk indoors at home doing homework and writing on paper, also looking at a mobile tablet

Here are some reflective questions that might support genuine curriculum questions in your faculty:

  • Concepts: What makes English unique and distinct as a discipline? What are its building blocks – the ‘foundational’ concepts from which rich, interconnected schema are built?
  • Coherency: How might concepts best be sequenced? When and how should they be revisited? What might be the benefits of this sequence? What are the drawbacks? What have we left out?
  • Connections: How do our chosen texts exemplify the concepts? What are the ‘big ideas’ we want to prioritise and how do they connect to the concepts? What are the most important connections we want pupils to make between concepts, big ideas and texts? How will we support pupils who might struggle to make the connections themselves?

We have an exciting opportunity right now to harness the momentum of the national focus, to ride the research revolution and to have rich conversations about English, so that every pupil can experience a curriculum which not only improves their life chances but nourishes their souls with all the beauty of language and literature.

Let’s make sure we keep the conversation going.

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About the author

Sam Gibbs is Trust Lead for Curriculum and Development at the Greater Manchester Education Trust. She is an experienced English teacher, school leader, and teacher educator who has worked with schools across the country on teaching and learning, curriculum design and implementation, and instructional coaching.